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I am 13 years old and a Bishop John King Mussio Jr. High student from Steubenville, Ohio, USA. I play basketball and volleyball, and I have dyslexia. I was officially diagnosed and started receiving services at my school in second grade. I struggle, but I have come far thanks to my interventionist and some great teachers. At my school, all 6th and 7th grade students are required to do a science fair project. In my first year, I struggled with it. I had no interest in it and just didn't grasp the process. I dreaded doing it again in my 7th-grade year, but then my mom, my science teacher, and I brainstormed ideas that might be more personal and interesting to me. That led me to do a project centered around my dyslexia. My school is great with following my IEP and my accommodations, but I didn't feel like my teachers really understood what I was going through. That's when I decided that they should be the subject of this science fair project. I wanted them to see what their dyslexic students were seeing. So, I began my project, "Can teachers decode text the way a dyslexic student sees it?"
First, I found a sample of "dyslexic" text online. It was pretty accurate, but it wasn't moving and didn't show words that disappeared or faded as I saw them. I made a few changes to the text and printed that and the translation that a traditional reader would see. I interviewed 30 teachers from different schools and grades. I first timed them reading the dyslexic text, then timed them reading the translated text, expecting reading time to be much slower, having to decode the text as I see it. As I did my research and prepared my project, I decided that just timing the teachers was not enough. I wanted them to tell me how it felt having to do that. After my interviews, I proved my hypothesis - it took much longer for them to read the dyslexic text - 2 minutes longer. Of my 30 subjects, eight even gave up. They just quit. I reminded them that quitting isn't an option for me and my classmates.
My favorite part of this project was the comments the teachers provided after the experiment. I got comments such as:
"I wanted to cry."
"It felt like reading a foreign language."
"It took so much energy to concentrate."
"I was embarrassed that people around me were watching me trying to read."
Any dyslexic can tell you that this is how we feel nearly every day. I was really happy because almost every one of the teachers thanked me for doing the project and opening their eyes to how their students struggled.
My project won best of show in our school science fair. I moved on to the district level, where I received a superior rating and won a behavioral science award. I then moved on to state competition where I also received a superior rating and was invited to State Science Day at The Ohio State University. I have also been asked to present at teacher meetings, Boy and Girl Scout meetings, and a few advocacy groups. Many people have asked my mom to show my presentation to their teachers and other parents. My goal was to help my teachers understand. I never imagined the project would take off like this and be able to help so many people. I am so happy that I can help students like me.
Q & A with Luaren
Q & A with Lauren
How did you modify the "dyslexic" text to simulate the experience of dyslexic readers better?
When my mom and I were looking for some kind of text to have teachers read, we found a few interactive examples online. But with my experiment, I wasn't always going to have my computer and Internet access. I needed something I could carry with me. We found one that was pretty accurate and showed how words for us could run together and split up. Also, the letters that look alike were switched. But it didn't show moving text or how some words fade out or disappear. We couldn't make it move, but I did blur out some words and used different colors on them to make them look like they were fading. For me personally, my text moves a lot and looks shaky or jagged. I have a lot of problems with my B's and D's also.
What were your expectations before conducting the experiment? Were the results as you anticipated, or did you encounter any surprising findings?
I was actually surprised after my experiment. I mean, I know it's hard for me, but I didn't expect it to be so hard for teachers. I knew there would be a time difference, but I didn't expect them to take that long to read just a few paragraphs. What really shocked me was how many teachers just quit after less than a minute. I can't quit. I can't imagine what they would say to me if I just gave up on an assignment.
Winning "Best of Show" in your school's science fair and receiving recognition at district and state levels is remarkable. How did you feel when your project received such accolades?
I was in complete shock. My mom and my science teacher were also shocked. They both cried. I felt so proud afterwards when my principal and the other teachers talked to me about how important it was. On the way home, I was a little overwhelmed and cried. This was my very first academic award. It felt good to be recognized for being smart.
Can you share a particularly heart warming or memorable experience from presenting your project at teacher meetings, scout meetings, or advocacy groups?
I think what has been most memorable to me has been the parents and family members who have thanked me. They say that it has helped them to understand their children better and to see the disability through their eyes. I have had a few ask for advice on how to be prepared for middle school and how to advocate for themselves. I really hope I was able to help. I was excited when a lot of my friends asked to do my experiment, too. They said they wanted to try to read as we see it. They were also shocked at how difficult it was.
How do you think your project has affected the way your teachers approach dyslexic students now?
I have definitely seen changes in my teachers toward me and the other dyslexic students. I feel like they now see that we aren't being lazy or unfocused. I feel like they are more aware when they are putting notes up on the whiteboard and just more aware of how much energy it takes for us. They seem to be more patient with their students with learning disabilities. My science teacher has made a lot of changes in her classroom. She changed the way she does notes, using some different color backgrounds and bold letters. She also changed some fonts she used and changed how we take tests. She is now also taking some classes on dyslexia and learning disabilities for another degree she is getting.
How does it feel to know that your project has touched so many lives and is now being shared with a broader audience?
I really can't believe this is happening. I never felt like I would ever be able to help anyone in school because of how I struggle, but now I feel like I can help a lot of people just like me. I think that if all teachers could see what their students are facing, they would be more understanding and more aware of the accommodations and why we have those accommodations in place. They can see why we learn differently and why we need to be taught differently.
In your opinion, what more can schools and educators do to support dyslexic students and create a more inclusive learning environment?
I think there needs to be more contact and talks between teachers, interventionists, aides, and parents. I know it's hard because they are all busy, but maybe at the beginning of the year, they should all sit down together and talk about what works and what doesn't work for each individual student. For example, with tests, one student might be okay in group settings for tests, but another may need to sit separately to avoid distractions. I tend to panic when I see other people are finished and handing in their work. Then they talk or move around and distract me. Maybe there is something teachers can do to minimize those distractions.
What do you plan on doing when you are older?
I'm still not 100% sure what I want to do. To be honest, I was kind of scared to think about it. I have always wanted to be an actress, and I know there are a lot of actors and actresses with dyslexia like me. I have also thought about being a lawyer. I think I could really help people.
What advice would you give to other dyslexic students who may be struggling to find their voice or advocate for themselves?
I have been asked this a few times since my project. I think that first, they need to be aware of what they should be getting with their plans and accommodations. If I had a teacher who wasn't following these, I first talked to her. Then, I would talk to my interventionist, who was a great help. She really helped make sure my teachers knew what I needed. She was in constant contact with my mom. If that failed, then I knew that my mom would swoop in and ask for meetings and even get the principal involved if needed. But what students like me really need to know is to not be afraid.